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America's Racial Litmus Test

Farrakhan is not the Problem

by TIM WISE

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thirteen years ago, when I first started out on the lecture circuit, speaking about the issue of racism, it seemed as though everywhere I went, someone wanted to know my opinion of Louis Farrakhan.

To some extent, this was to be expected, I suppose. It was 1995, after all, and Farrakhan had just put together the Million Man March in DC. So when race came up, that, and sadly, the OJ Simpson trial and verdict seemed to be the two templates onto which white folks in particular would graft their racial anxieties.

Though OJ has long since faded as a matter of conversation among most, discussion of Farrakhan never seems to end. As controversy has erupted regarding comments made by Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Wright’s occasional words of praise for Farrakhan have caused many to suggest that he, and by extension, Obama, are somehow tainted. Wright, we are to believe, is forever compromised as a legitimate commentator on issues of race and even as a man of God. And why? In large part because he has noted two basic truths that are pretty hard to dispute: first, that Farrakhan is an important voice in black America–important in the sense that millions of black folks are interested in what he has to say–and second, that he is someone whose community work with young black men has been constructive where many other efforts to reach them have failed. Although Wright has never indicated that he agrees with the more extreme comments made by the Minister over the past two-and-a-half decades (and indeed, much of Wright’s own ministry and approach to issues of race, gender and sexuality suggests profound disagreements with Farrakhan on these matters), his unwillingness to condemn the Nation of Islam leader is used to write him off as an extremist and a bigot.

As someone who is Jewish, I am expected to join in this chorus, apparently. Thus, the repeated and regular queries dating back at least fifteen years from other Jewish folks or from whites generally, asking why it is that I have never, in all of my years as an antiracist activist, turned my pen (or at least my computer keyboard) on Farrakhan.

But the simple truth is, Louis Farrakhan is not the problem when it comes to racism, sexism or heterosexism in this country; nor is he any real threat to Jews as Jews, or whites as whites, contrary to popular mythology.

Much as Muhammad Ali once famously noted that no member of the Vietcong had ever referred to him by a common racial slur, as a way to explain his lack of enthusiasm for fighting in Southeast Asia, I must point out that no member of the Nation of Islam ever told me when I was growing up that I was going to hell, that my soul was an empty vessel, or that I would burn in a lake of fire for all eternity, just like all of my Jewish ancestors, because we had rejected God. The folks who did that were white Christians: teachers, preachers, other kids, and co-workers–all of them spiritual terrorists and religious bigots of the first order. And not one of them was selling a bean pie on the corner, or copies of The Final Call. Yet, we as Jews make nice with Christians just like that, who smile while they condemn us, whose sense of spiritual superiority apparently causes us no alarm, nor spurs us to denounce them for their chauvinism, while the Nation of Islam’s occasional episodes of anti-Jewish sentiment send us into fits of apoplexy.

But can we get real for a moment? What ability does Farrakhan have to do me any harm, or any Jew for that matter? When was the last time those of us who are Jewish had to worry about whether or not our Farrakhan-following employer was going to discriminate against us? Or whether our Fruit of Islam loan officer was going to turn us down for a mortgage? Or whether our Black Muslim landlord was going to screw us out of a rent deposit because of some anti-Jewish feelings, conjured up by reading the Nation’s screed on Jewish involvement in the slave trade? The answer, of course, is never. If anything, members of the Nation, or black folks in general, have a much greater likelihood of being the victims of discrimination at our hands–the hands of a Jewish employer, banker or landlord, and certainly a white one, Jewish or not–than we’ll ever have at theirs. White and/or Jewish bias against Nation members, either as blacks or Muslims or both, is more likely to restrict their opportunities than even the most advanced black bigotry is capable of doing to us. That’s because bias alone is never sufficient to do much harm. Without some kind of institutional power to back up that bias, even the most unhinged black racism or anti-Jewish bigotry is pretty impotent.

Oh sure, a black Muslim could attack me on the streets I suppose, either because of my whiteness or my Jewishness, so in that sense, the potential for such a person to harm me exists. But how many of us who are Jews have really been attacked by members of the Nation of Islam? Not only in absolute terms, but relative to the number who have been attacked or otherwise abused by white Christians? And why, given the likely answers to those questions, do we continue to fear the former, while spending so much time trying to ingratiate ourselves to the latter? Is their support for Israel–which is only offered because they hope ingathering Jews there will bring about the return of Jesus, at which point we’ll all be sent to hell anyway–really that important? Is that all we require in order to be pimped?

Likewise, although lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered folks face violence regularly, and can be discriminated against legally in housing or employment, how often are members of the LGBT community singled out for these things by members of the Nation of Islam, as opposed to so-called God-fearing Christians filled with something to which these latter typically refer as "love?"

Sadly, it isn’t only conservative and right-wing white folks who have chosen to make Farrakhan something of a racial Rorschach test for black leaders. To wit, the recent ventilations of self-proclaimed spiritual guru, Michael Lerner, who claimed in an April 29, 2008 e-blast from his "Network of Spiritual Progressives," that lasting damage had likely been done by Rev. Wright’s praise for Farrakhan. According to Lerner, failure to clearly condemn the Nation of Islam leader is a "danger to any hopes of reconciliation between blacks and whites in this country."

But such a statement–in effect, placing the burden for racial reconciliation on black people, who must condemn Farrakhan in order for whites to be willing to dialogue–is a grotesque inversion of historic responsibility for the problem of racism in the United States.

Disturbingly, Lerner’s formulation suggests it is perfectly legitimate for whites to hold blacks as a group responsible for the words of Louis Farrakhan, or the inadequate condemnation of Farrakhan by Rev. Wright. To believe that praise for Farrakhan is a deal-breaker when it comes to white-black amity, is to endorse the notion of collective blame: the same kind of thing Lerner rightly rejects when it is done to Jews. If someone were to suggest that Jewish folks’ tepid condemnation of the Israeli government’s repression of the Palestinians, or terrorist Jews like Meir Kahane–whose followers are welcomed participants each year in New York’s "Israel Day Parade"–legitimizes anti-Semitism, or makes reconciliation between Jews and Muslims impossible, Lerner would be rightly outraged. But in his recent message, he engages in the same sloppy thinking.

Secondly, by arguing that praise for Farrakhan makes racial reconciliation impossible, Lerner essentially places the burden for solving the nation’s race problem on blacks and blacks alone. Whites are not asked by Lerner to renounce popular white politicians or historical figures, even those with egregious records on issues of racial equity and justice. Only blacks must prove their sincerity by renouncing one of their own. It is as if Lerner believes Farrakhan were the reason for white folks’ intransigence on issues of race; as if he honestly thinks whites had embraced the cause of racial equity until Farrakhan burst into the national consciousness sometime in the early 1980s. It’s as if he thinks whites have been honest racial brokers, just waiting for blacks to come to the table of brotherhood, while blacks have been the impediment to progress because of their occasional kind words for the Minister. In other words, Lerner writes as if history never happened, or at least is of no consequence.

And speaking of history, for white Americans to condemn Farrakhan, while still admiring some of the people for whom we have affection–who have not only said but done far more evil things than he–is evidence of how compromised is the principle we now seek to impose on others. It is evidence of our duplicity on this subject, our utter venality as arbiters of moral indignation. It isn’t that what Farrakhan has said about Jews, or gay and lesbian folks is acceptable–it isn’t. But the fact that his words make him a pariah, while white folks actions don’t do the same for us, is astounding.

After all, Louis Farrakhan never led a nation into war on false pretense. A white American president, supported in two consecutive elections by the majority of white people did that. And still, millions of whites are riding around with those infernal W stickers on the backs of their vehicles.

Louis Farrakhan never bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan–responsible for making almost all of the drugs needed to fight major illness in that impoverished nation–on the false claim that it was a lab for chemical weapons. Another white American president, revered by white liberals did that. And millions of white folks have been supporting that president’s wife in her quest for the same office, at least in part to return to the glory days they felt were embodied by her husband’s administration.

Louis Farrakhan never overthrew any foreign governments that had been elected by their people, only to replace them with dictators who were more to his liking. One after another white American president has done that, going back decades.

Louis Farrakhan didn’t bomb the home of a foreign leader, killing his daughter in the process, or arm a rebel group in Nicaragua responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 civilians, or give guns to governments in El Salvador and Guatemala that regularly tortured and executed their people. One of white America’s favorite white Presidents, Ronald Reagan did that. And millions of white folks (and pretty much only white folks) cried tears of nostalgia when he passed a few years ago, after which point thousands of these went to his ranch in California to pay tribute; and they name buildings and airports for him now; and some even suggest that his face should be added to Mt. Rushmore.

Louis Farrakhan didn’t say that his adversaries should be hunted down until they no longer "remained on the face of the Earth." One of America’s most revered white presidents, Thomas Jefferson, said that, in regard to American Indians. And he’s on the two-dollar bill that I used to buy some coffee this morning.

And even if we were to restrict our comparative analysis to extreme statements alone, the fact is, white folks who say things every bit as bigoted as anything said by Farrakhan remain in good standing with the media and millions of whites who buy their books and make them best-selling authors.

Take Pat Buchanan, for instance. Despite a litany of offensive, racist and anti-Jewish remarks over the years, Buchanan remains a respected commentator on any number of mainstream news shows and networks, his books sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and rarely if ever has he been denounced by other pundits, or grilled by journalists, the way Farrakhan has been, in both cases.

So, for instance, Buchanan has said that AIDS is nature’s retribution for homosexuality; that women are "not endowed by nature" with sufficient ambition or will to succeed in a competitive society like that of the United States; and that the U.S. should annex parts of Canada so as to increase the size of the nation’s "white tribe" (because we were becoming insufficiently white at present), among other things.

Most relevant to demonstrating the hypocrisy of the press when it comes to Farrakhan, however, consider what Buchanan has said about Adolf Hitler. When Farrakhan said Hitler had been a "great" military and national leader–albeit a "wicked killer" (which is the part of the quote that normally gets ignored)–he was denounced as an apologist for genocide. Yet, when Buchanan wrote, in 1977, that Hitler had been "an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the great war," a man of "extraordinary gifts," whose "genius" was due to his "intuitive sense of the mushiness, the character flaws, the weakness masquerading as morality that was in the hearts of the statesmen who stood in his path," it did nothing to harm his career, and has done nothing in the years since to prevent him from becoming a member of the pundit club in Washington. Nor would he receive the kind of criticism as Farrakhan–at least not lasting criticism–when he wrote in 1990 that survivors of the European Holocaust exaggerated their suffering due to "Holocaust survivor syndrome," and that the gas chambers alleged at Treblinka couldn’t have actually killed anyone because they were too inefficient.

In other words, a white guy can praise Hitler, can cast aspersions on the veracity of Jews who were slotted to be killed, and can make blatantly racist, sexist and homophobic remarks and ultimately nothing happens to him, and no white politician is ever asked their opinion of him, or made to distance him or herself from the white man’s rantings. But black folks will have to do the dance, will have to make sure to reject Farrakhan, because otherwise, apparently, we should intuit that they are closet members of the Nation, just waiting to take office so they can pop on a bow tie and put Elijah Muhammad’s face on the nation’s currency.

Perhaps when white folks begin to show as much concern for the bigoted statements and, more to the point, murderous actions of white political leaders as we show over the statements of Louis Farrakhan, then we’ll deserve to be taken seriously in this thing we call the "national dialogue on race." Until then, however, folks of color will continue–and rightly, understandably so–to view us as trying to dodge our personal responsibility for our share of the problem. They will view us, and with good reason, as merely using Farrakhan so that we can divert attention from institutional discrimination, institutionalized white privilege and power, and the way in which white denial maintains a lid on social change, by creating the impression that everything is fine, and whatever isn’t fine is the fault of "crazy," militant black people, who follow so-called crazy and hateful religious leaders. In this way, white Americans can continue to pretend that the nation’s racial problem isn’t about us; that we are but passive observers of a drama concocted by others, over which only they have any control. And in this way, we guarantee the perpetuation of the very enmity we claim not to understand, the very tension we cannot comprehend, and the chasm-like divide that was created in our name and for our historic benefit, no matter how much we try and shift the blame now, heads rooted firmly in the proverbial sand.

TIM WISE is the author of: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at: timjwise@msn.com